Saved by a Chickadee
Age Nine. Massachusetts, 1953
The switch seared the back of my bare legs as he held me over his lap. He had peeled the bark off a thin willow branch making each smack burn even more. “You idiot, you stupid idiot!” he bellowed, “Your mother showed you how to iron my shirts, and you burned the collar. Look at that brown mess, you dim-witted dummy! You’ll never amount to anything—don’t deserve the food I put on the table or the bed you sleep in. Best you sleep in the barn tonight with the other animals. Even they are smarter, you worthless piece of garbage.”
I knew to stay as still as I could, not to make a sound as the whipping continued. Breath caught in my chest as his other hand pushed hard on my back. The sound of the branch hissed through the air over and over. I bit my lip to not cry out from the burn of his lash. Finally, he pushed me to the floor, and with his work boot, gave a kick to my side. His lighter clicked as he walked off lighting a cigarette and muttering.
I retreated to the wooded area behind our house, a year-round refuge for me. The late November breeze was brisk on my face as I made my way to the animal trail where I often walked. Stiff branches blocked my entrance, but I knew if I pushed my way in, I could find peace. I wanted to get away as quickly as I could, afraid he might follow me. Marshy ground sloshed under my boots as I trudged the well-worn path. Reeds and sedges browning in late fall no longer held red-winged blackbirds, my summer-time companions. I stopped at the shallow brook winding through the middle of the marsh. Water bubbled over rocks, and a thin, transparent layer of ice clung to the edges of the water. No matter what happened to me, I could always come here and breathe in the harmony and beauty of the natural world. I bent down and broke off a bit of ice to apply to my still stinging legs under my blue jeans.
The deeper evergreen-lined trail was moss and pine-needle covered. My favorite spot to lie down in the princess pine also contained wintergreen vines with autumn red berries. Through the branches, the sky was the grey-blue of fall. In this special place I always promised myself that when I grew up I would marry a man who was kind, smart, and a good father to children we would love. During this reverie, suddenly a flock of chickadees appeared in the branches above. They flitted with quick acrobatics from one branch to the next, their tiny beaks pecking for insect grubs in the bark. They called their cheerful dee-dee-dee as they hung upside down in the branches. I stayed very still, and one little black and white ball of feathers on a low branch hopped near me. It called its lively tune as it danced from one tiny branch to the next. I was at the same time entranced and lost in this display, away from my cruel world at home, saved by the grace of a chickadee.